In most cases, the game before a meeting against the Philadelphia Eagles, no matter where the game is played, can be considered a trap game for the Dallas Cowboys. For those who aren't familiar with trap games, they often occur prior to arch rivals meeting at any level of football, from high school to the pros.
This particular matchup against the Eagles, just over a week away, offers no such invitation to look ahead. Even if it did, the Cowboys would be salivating at the opportunity to play the turnover machine that is the Eagles offense, led by quarterback Michael Vick.
First up is the undefeated Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night.
A look back to last weekend offers an ominous glimpse at what could be in store for the Cowboys at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons walked into Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia last Sunday and simply demoralized the Eagles in pretty much every facet of the game. Quarterback Matt Ryan engineered touchdown drives on Atlanta’s first three possessions and the Falcons never looked back.
The Birds scored quickly and methodically, a dangerous combination for a team like Dallas that really likes to turn the ball over.
No, the Cowboys cannot look beyond the daunting task ahead in Georgia.
The Falcons are the most balanced offense in football with a running game charged by tailback Michael Turner, and a passing game directed by Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones.
And if you’re thinking there might be a break at the tight end position, think again. Tony Gonzalez, a 16-year veteran, is on pace to catch 105 passes for over 1,000 yards and around 10 touchdowns.
Yes, this will be the stiffest test yet for second-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in 2012.
The biggest test, of course, is for third-year head coach Jason Garrett. We’re talking prime time, national television against an undefeated opponent that has as good a chance as anybody to play in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans early next year.
But we know about the Garrett-led Cowboys offense in big games, right?
Unfortunately, yes. Some of Dallas’ most embarrassing moments have come while Garrett had the headset on.
Remember the playoff game against the Giants in early 2008?
What about later that same year in the “win-and-you’re-in” regular-season finale in Philadelphia?
Then there’s my personal favorite: the absolutely uncompetitive meltdown in Minnesota against the Vikings in the 2009 playoffs.
Ah, the memories.
Well, the Falcons game may not have immediate playoff implications, but it likely will later down the road.
What makes this game so big is what comes after it, especially if the Cowboys find a way to hand the Falcons their first defeat of 2012.
After Atlanta comes a raggedy Eagles team and a frustrated fanbase that, like many Cowboys fans, wants a change at the head coaching spot in Philly.
Following the Eagles game comes three straight road games against teams all under .500 so far.
In fact, after Philadelphia, the Cowboys will play five of their last seven games at home with only Pittsburgh looming as a likely playoff contender.
If the Cowboys so much as split the next two games against Atlanta and Philly, then we can expect the same thing we saw last year. Dallas will be in the playoff conversation in December, but will probably find a way to miss out because they'll finish with a record of 8-8 or 9-7.
But if Dallas can just beat the Falcons, they could be looking at a real opportunity facing five consecutive games against teams with losing records.
No, don’t hold your breath for a victory Sunday night. The reality is that the Cowboys have massive issues from the top all the way down to the water boy, despite having some very talented football players.
Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Cowboys did pull off an upset. Dallas might be due to play a cleaner game on offense after last week’s turnover-fest against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The Cowboys match up favorably with Atlanta at most skill positions, so a victory would hardly be a shocker.
But if the Cowboys lose to the Falcons at the midway point, then they would have to flip their record during the second half of the season just to reach 8-8, which might offer a slim shot at a wild-card berth in the dominant NFC.
Then they would travel to one of the following destinations to begin the postseason: New York, Chicago, Atlanta or San Francisco, all nice cities to visit unless you’re there to play the local professional football team.
The Cowboys have to string together some wins and it has to happen immediately.
The best chance so far in 2012 comes Sunday night.